I once went skeet-shooting with a group of colleagues, who had taken a liking for someone, who very obviously, did not share their demographics. They were very Caucasian, and very republican. I was neither. But, the fact that in many of my conversations with them, I had exhibited libertarian leanings, must have endeared me to them.
And hence, the invitation to come and shoot clay “pigeons” with them, with a nice shotgun, which, among other things, shot pretty well. At the end of the day, we drove to a little mom and pop’s place by the interstate, and over a couple of beers and fries, they told me their life’s stories and, many things about the guns they loved.
That was the first time I came to know that the Americans had a guaranteed freedom — to bear arms. Guaranteed by the second amendment to the American constitution. The National Rifle Association, or the NRA, is a vociferous defender of the people’s right to bear arms, and one of the popular NRA bumper stickers you are likely to come across, proudly proclaims, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”
The famous Hollywood actor, Charlton Heston, who was also the president of the NRA for a while, was quite instrumental in popularizing this phrase. And, on that lazy evening filled with glasses of beer and the smell of spent ammunition, as I was being educated by my colleagues on guns, I learned the guiding philosophy of life from “Smokey” Ryder, a trigger happy guy, with two missing front teeth. When the beer had sufficiently soaked in, Smokey passed on his life’s wisdom to me, “It’s kinda easy to git a gun, but where will ya’ll git the money to pay for the ammo? Life’s tough, ain’t it?”
Above the din of the crowded restaurant, I slowly drifted away — to a small town in North India, that I grew up in. We had just one family in the entire neighborhood that owned a shotgun. And that too, was because the patriarch of the family was a retired Thanedar, or someone, who was once in charge of a police station. I used to address the old man as Dada-ji, because I used to play with his grandson.
Buntee Singh, besides having the most cliched Desi name, was generally a good lad, and fervently shared his grandfather’s interest in guns. During lazy afternoons on holidays, the two of us would climb up on top of an old and decrepit water tank, and watch the local teams play cricket. And Buntee, would educate me on the benefits of owning a gun.
Years later, I met Buntee at a railway station. He was in a hurry, and was carrying a shiny wooden case. I assumed that it had some sort of a musical instrument in it. But, right before Buntee hopped into his train, he told me that he was carrying a gun in the case. It was a licensed firearm that his family would use to shoot blanks in the air, during a family wedding he was headed to.
And, to ensure the protection of his firearm on the generally unsafe train, he was paying a thousand bucks to the brave souls of the railway protection force. As his train left the station, above the cries of the chaiwalas trying to convince people to get one last cup of tea, and the smoke from the Charminar I was blowing, I saw Buntee waving at me from the RPF compartment, one last time.
Recently, the memories of gun toting crusaders came back to me under strange circumstances. With a cup of tea in my hand, I had just found an empty seat in the busy cafeteria of a well known university. Most of my fellow occupants on the long table were young students. They were debating the ongoing anti-corruption struggle in India. They seemed to be the followers of Anna Hazare, and were generally unhappy about the recent treatment meted out to another anti-corruption crusader, Baba Ramdev.
One of them was quite a vocal proponent of Baba Ramdev’s assertion that concerned citizens should have the right to raise a private army. But when he started talking about the second amendment of the Americans, the one that gives them the right to bear arms, I decided to join the conversation.
“You know, you already have an army to guarantee your constitutional rights, why do you need to raise your own?” I asked. He seemed surprised at the sudden question. But, he asked me what recourse does an ordinary citizen in the country have when public figures like Ramdev or Hazare are not given the right to protest. About corruption, that is slowly eating away at whatever good remains in our public institutions. He was quite passionate about what he had to say.
Most young people of his grandfather’s generation had probably braved baton-charges from the colonial British, to get India her freedom. And, the young people of his father’s generation had probably followed Jayprakash Narayan to prison, to ensure that Indira Gandhi’s emergency did not take away their hard won freedom. It was his generation’s turn now, to organize meetings against corruption and debate the pros and cons, of staying peaceful, or resorting to guns. To ensure that India does not turn into a civilization lost to corruption.
He had decided to educate me a little more about his point of view. “You cannot have complete freedom if the state has arms and you don’t. Look at the Americans. They have more freedom than us, because their constitution allows them to bear arms. If I need a gun, I have to get a license. And that process, always starts with a bribe. In our system, only the bad guys have guns. And the good guys can’t even protest peacefully.”
I tried to pull a “Smokey Ryder” on my young friend. “Let’s say that you get your gun. But, who is going to pay for the ammo? You know, these things don’t come cheap.” I saw that some of his friends had started grinning. My young friend suddenly started lecturing me on demand and supply. And volume production. He argued, that just like computers became cheap due to mass production, if everyone was allowed to carry guns, the prices were bound to fall. And then, everyone would have ammo.
I didn’t want to argue any more, since I had to go somewhere. So, I added, “And when the ammo becomes really cheap, may be, we can all go skeet-shooting. You know, the kind in which you use a shotgun to shoot down clay pigeons.”
First, he looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. Then, with a wide grin on his face, he said, “Are you serious? I thought that only crazy people did that sort of stuff. But, I guess we could have some serious fun with that stuff if we could do it here.”
He didn’t say it, but I am sure that if my young friend ever went skeet-shooting, he would write about it on his Facebook page. And occasionally, tweet about it.